NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Alexander Radulov’s absence from practice makes the jokes far too easy: The forward is on his way back to Russia. Someone just dropped him off at the airport.
However, Nashville opponents aren’t laughing.
The Predators are a more serious Stanley Cup contender with the talented forward back in the lineup after four years spent in the Kontinental Hockey League where Radulov was the all-time leading scorer with 254 points, two-time MVP and helped his team win the 2011 championship.
Detroit forward Jiri Hudler got an up-close view of Radulov in the KHL and saw a hard worker who brings lots of energy along with good hands and hockey sense.
“He was a star, best player in the league back there. I’m pretty sure he’ll be here soon, too (as a star),” Hudler said Monday. “I think it’ll help him that he came right after the season. He played a lot of minutes back home.”
The Predators earned the No. 4 seed in the West by ranking eighth in the NHL scoring 232 goals, and they had nine players score at least 14 goals apiece with Patric Hornqvist having a team-high 27 goals and Martin Erat leading Nashville with 58 points.
Still, Radulov has the kind of scoring touch that cannot be taught. In just nine games since rejoining Nashville last month, Radulov scored seven points for a total that doesn’t include his shootout game-winner over Minnesota last week.
It’s why he’s seen as the Predators’ wild card as they open the post-season Wednesday night against Detroit in Nashville
“He just adds more skill and speed to their lineup and he’s a big guy, too,” Detroit defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom said. “Adding him late in the year, I think has helped their team.”
Radulov’s skill is why so many teams in the Western Conference weren’t happy that he was allowed to rejoin the Predators under his rookie contract without passing through waivers. He is so dynamic that Nashville coach Barry Trotz said the Predators are learning to play with him a bit still.
“Sometimes his skill set is a little higher than what you think, sometimes a little higher than some of us other guys,” Trotz said.
Radulov got the day off Monday, and Trotz said he will be back Tuesday. That didn’t stop defenceman Ryan Suter from dead-panning and asking reporters if they hadn’t heard that Radulov had headed back to Russia before turning serious.
“He didn’t miss a beat,” Suter said. “He fit right in with the guys. He’s a fun guy to play with.”
Nashville always has thought highly of Radulov, making him the 15th pick overall in 2004. He joined the Predators in the 2006-07 season and scored 37 points. He blossomed with 58 points in 2007-08 before bolting back home to Russia in July 2008 for a much bigger contract that helped make him the face of the KHL.
Now Radulov has a bigger stage for what will be his third post-season in the NHL. He has five career goals and eight points in 10 playoff games in 2007 against San Jose and 2008 against Detroit.
“I think the fans got a little bit of a taste of what he can do in the playoffs back when we played San Jose,” Nashville captain Shea Weber said. “It’s exciting, and he’s one of those players he’s going to get better and bring a lot of excitement to the playoffs.”
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound forward has had plenty of playoff experience since then in the KHL with Salavat Yulayev Ufa. He also played for Russia in the last five World Championships, winning gold medals in 2008 and 2009, and at the 2010 Olympics.
Trotz said he expects Radulov to adjust as the series with Detroit goes on.
“He’s a little bit more mature as a player,” Trotz said. “He’s had some great experience, won a couple championships, been a top player over in Russia. I think he’s had a lot of experience, and he’s a lot different player and person than he was four years ago.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.